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Trials of Zion

by Alan M. Dershowitz

Grand Central Publishing/Hachette | 340 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

alan dershowitz

Alan M. Dershowitz is an amazing man, by anyone’s standards. and he has nothing to prove to anyone.  He’s one of the best known criminal and civil liberties lawyers and a staunch defender of Israel, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and author of hundreds of articles and 30 books.  According to the biography on his website, he has “written, taught and lectured about history, philosophy, psychology, literature, mathematics, theology, music, sports – and even delicatessens.”  A Renaissance man, in short.

But why does Dershowitz feel the need to pen a thriller?  To draw on his unique insights into the legalities at issue in the Mideast, to dramatize the troubled history and unclear paths to resolution?  To pave the way for a movie based on this book, as his book on the Claus van Bulow trial, Reversal of Fortune, succeeded in doing? I found a partial answer in the interview he gave to Hachette’s blogtalkradio on October 8th

.  Writers and lawyers, he says, have the same abilities: “Every lawyer has to know how to tell a story, present a narrative.”   Yes, but a good thriller, like a good wine, has many more elements mixed in: suspense, captivating characters capable of heroics, thematic development, unusual point of view.  He does a respectable job of it, in certain lights, but not one truthfully that would score more than a “4” in a blind tasting.

He sets his tale in Israel in the not-too-distant future (G-d forbid!) and populates the novel with movie star quality characters: Rendi, an enigmatic, exotic-looking, ex-CIA wife (Angelina Jolie?); Emma, your typical recent college grad: bright, fearless but still only half out of the nest (Nathalie Portman?); Habash, the enigmatic, exotic-looking modern-day Omar Sharif, a Christian Arab (Robert Pattinson?); and finally, Abe, the author’s stand-in, world-famous Jewish lawyer and family man (Paul Giamatti?).

The opening scene is terrific, the best thing about the novel, and I won’t spoil it here.  The plot then rolls along with a few twists and turns.  Dershowitz weaves in bits of history with the present action (acts of terrorism, courtroom dramas, criminal investigations).  We even get a love story of sorts between Emma and Habash – dare they?  Daren’t they?  One problem is that the characters are a bit tame.  Emma turns weepy and clingy just when it’s time for her to put on a Wonder Woman costume and do something heroic, or at least grown-up!  She’s a hotshot law school graduate yet she manages to get herself in trouble just in time to be rescued by Daddy.  She has a crush on her Arab boss but hardly seems to give thought to the repercussions, context, or future of such an affair.

 All by herself, she sets feminism back half a century.

  Habash sadly seems to be really, really boring, a bachelor whose life is set in stone at a young age, and someone who’s not given much to do once Daddy shows up.  Rendi is daring – we sense she could run rings around Abe and the others, but her murky past and former lovers make us wonder about her truthfulness and reliability.  Abe?  Well, what do you expect?  He’s our middle-aged hero who outsmarts everyone except his tactics don’t seem amazing enough to sustain the story!  Curiously, he seems unmotivated to investigate his wife’s past liaisons and their possible impact on the present situation. 

All in all, the story’s not thrilling enough for a thriller.  By the end, Abe (a/k/a Dershowitz), concerned, as a good Jewish father should be, with the welfare of his wife and daughter, seems in a great rush to fly home to safety and get away from all this Mideast mishegas.  Dershowitz, terminates his tale telling in a very abrupt manner.   He’s had his courtroom scenes and he wants to go home now.  Loose ends abound but no one seems to notice.  Emma, now that she’s finally gotten the attention of Habash, suddenly decides she can’t limit herself to one guy and runs off.  In best Nancy Drew fashion, she wonders what her next adventure will be (oh no, a sequel?)!  The ending of the story in no way matches the intensity of the beginning and leaves the reader asking, “That’s it???”

So what are we left with?  Theme: It’s complicated (in the Mideast).  Tangled past.  Hard to know whom to trust.  Two state solution = doomed?  Style: Dershowitz writes clearly, the book is well edited, and has some page turning quality. . . But like some wine that’s been poorly stored, there are too many pieces of dried out cork floating in the glass.

A word to the author: Again, why bother, Alan?  There’s others can do a much better job of it, and only you can do the kinds of things you do.

And to John Grisham: no need to comb Craigslist for a day job just yet. . .

Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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